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‘Tomorrowland’: Disney futureworld gets lost in the funhouse

Written By | Jun 8, 2015
Screen shot from "Tomorrowland" trailer.

Screen shot from “Tomorrowland” trailer, courtesy Disney Studios.

WASHINGTON, June 8, 2015 – The old joke involving Tomorrowland, the future-themed portion of Disney World, was that it was what people in the 1960s thought the 1990s would look like. Now at movie theaters across the country, “Tomorrowland,” the movie – which is ever so loosely based on the Disney theme park motif – feels ironically like nostalgia for an idealized version of that very same 1960s look-ahead.

On the surface, “Tomorrowland” – a creation of director/writer/producer Brad Bird and writer/producer Damon Lindelof – follows George Clooney’s Frank Walker and Brit Robertson’s Casey Newton as they try to save the real world and rescue the fictional world that is Tomorrowland.

Early in the film, this eponymous fictional utopia is described as the place where the world’s brightest and most innovative minds were to create wondrous designs that would benefit all mankind. But along the way, something went horribly wrong. Or at least this is what the audience is told.

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After that revelation, the subsequent two hours’ worth of running and chasing by Frank, Casey and Raffey Cassidy’s Audio-Animatronic Athena winds up becoming simply a vehicle for lugging around the main philosophical question underpinning this film: Where did all the hope and ideas go?

The movie begins – well, the story begins anyway – with a flashback in which an 11-year old Frank introduces his self-made jet pack to Hugh Laurie’s David Nix, Tomorrowland’s leader and later the film’s antagonist, at the 1964 World’s Fair. With the help of Athena, Frank is eventually included in the collective known as Tomorrowland.

At that point, the film somewhat jarringly shifts to Casey’s narrative in medias res as she attempts to sabotage efforts to shut down the shuttle platform at Cape Canaveral; that is, before she encounters a version of Tomorrowland by way of the very same Athena who once befriended Frank.

Only now does the the main thrust of the story begin.

Unfortunately, it’s at this point that the major cracks in “Tomorrowland’s” brittle structure begin to show, even though they were actually present from the very beginning in an almost painfully obvious way.

“Tomorrowland” unfolds within a framing device, wherein Frank is apparently talking into a recorder as Casey’s voice is arguing with him off camera. This tale-within-a-tale structure doesn’t really pay any dividends until the end of the film and proves underwhelming all along the way. Yet it also points to some of the film’s major structural flaws.

The first problem is that this movie never really decides whose movie it actually is. Are we supposed to be most concerned with Frank’s apparent need for redemption? Or should we be focusing on young Casey’s foray into a much bigger world than she has known? As we struggle to figure out whose story it is that we’re supposed to follow, this question of narrative focus hinders our involvement in the story, leaving the narrative underdeveloped and directionless for the most part.

In an odd way, the bickering by the central characters during the first few minutes of the film is an ironic commentary on the film itself. They seem locked in a battle to wrest control of the film and whatever its narrative is supposed to be.

This internal fight for narrative control ends up damaging the movie, preventing either character from developing genuine narrative momentum and audience identification.

Opening the film with Frank’s initial journey to Tomorrowland launches an interesting story arc in and of itself. Frank’s narrative could have been compelling if it had been followed to its logical conclusion, tracking this character’s road to exile and the reasons for it.

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By cutting that initial story off at its knees, however, the filmmakers turn Frank’s story into half-baked mush. It’s never clearly explained why Frank even needs to seek redemption.

Granted, at various times during the film, it’s hinted that the people of Tomorrowland built something they shouldn’t have and that this was somehow Frank’s fault. But this is barely addressed at the end of the movie, which quickly shifts to Frank’s regaining his belief system even though he seems never to have really lost hope to begin with. Did some of this film’s connective tissue end up on the cutting room floor?

There’s a problem with Casey’s trajectory as well. Since the film initially spends so much time focusing on Frank’s younger self, it naturally spends less than adequate time providing us with insights into what makes Casey tick. While we’re constantly told Casey is important and different, we’re never offered much in the way of facts to back up those claims, aside from the occasional random hint.

Casey winds up traveling down worn and predictable paths without giving us much insight into her allegedly more creative qualities. Her biggest contribution to this confusing film is that she seems to provide hope in a world that has become utterly devoid of that unique human quality. But we never quite learn why.

This constant narrative weakness and confusion leads to the much larger problem that mortally damages the core of “Tomorrowland”: It is an amazingly cynical film, something many critics seem to have missed entirely. From the outset, the filmmakers offer us a world that is completely devoid of hope.

At times, the filmmakers seem almost condescending toward the audience as they half-heartedly attempt to follow this dystopian notion to a conclusion. Casey is constantly swarmed with people telling her the world is doomed one way or another, allegedly leaving her as the lone bastion of light.

Yet that’s as far as it goes. Having aimed at making a profound statement, the film gets lost in a dark forest of doubt. Perhaps because of this, a weirdly discordant nostalgia slowly seeps into this muddled outlook in ways that limit the film’s potential message.

For example, by choosing to film Frank’s childhood in bright pastels, which in turn are juxtaposed against the flat and subdued earthy tones of Casey’s current reality, the filmmakers seem to be symbolizing in color their half-hearted lament, namely that we used to come up with brilliant ideas on a regular basis when we had hope for the future, but now…

This quickly becomes a cliché. Today it’s a fairly well known fact that every generation looks ahead at some point and finds only gloom and doom lurking on the horizon. It’s a tired, worn-out attitude. But the filmmakers run with it just the same. Perhaps they don’t know what else to do.

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Throughout the film, we get this gloom and doom message over and over. The filmmakers’ heads seem to be buried in the sand whenever the opportunity for an solution to their cosmic dilemma materializes.

One telling example occurs as Casey finally reaches a dilapidated Tomorrowland and is introduced to David Nix. Frank simply scoffs that he has no new ideas. It’s a point the movie harps on quite a bit.

Is the intention here to motivate the audience to think big and new once again, just as Frank did back in the day by creating a jetpack even before considering why anybody might need one? If so, we’re not left with any helpful hints. All we get is the film’s strangely hopeless attitude toward the joyful creativity that drives pure research.

Worse still for a movie that purports to be all about new ideas or the absence thereof, the filmmakers’ ultimate solution to this complex problem is to blow something up.

Granted, this is a summer movie, and in summer movies it’s mandatory that you blow something up. But for a movie aiming as high as “Tomorrowland,” to end things on that noisy and worn out trope feels like a cop-out. The epic, cleansing explosion is a worn-out though reliable device that’s apparently deployed here for no other discernable reason than the fact that all movies have to end at some point before the audience walks out.

As if things were not problematic enough, the film’s epilogue makes a mockery of the story arc, such as it is, by explaining to us how the remaining characters decide to rebuild.

Did the writers entirely forget that crucial storytelling rule from English 101: “Show, don’t tell?” Or was this epilogue tacked on because the film was already over-budget and out of time to repair its lack of focus? (Perhaps some day a director’s cut will surface.)

In a perfect world, “Tomorrowland” would have been a compelling three-act story involving Frank’s rise and fall, Casey’s journey of discovery, and how together, they joined forces to rebuild the future. But in the end, these key plot threads are cut short before they can lead to anything satisfying or coherent.

New ideas are never really that new, so it never hurts to look back on the past for inspiration. But “Tomorrowland” seems content to look back and lament that we can’t come up with anything cool anymore.

Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer. He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years. Currently he lives in Vienna, VA. He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.